Gentrification as Process, Not End-state

As football fans know, this catch is not a catch until the receiver “completes the process”.  The same can be said for gentrification; it’s not gentrification until the process is done, and that’s where the debate is.  Source:

Governing Magazine published a study last month to begin providing context on the extent and spread of gentrification in American metro areas.  The Gentrification In America Report examined gentrification activity in the 50 largest U.S. cities, and found the following:

  • Gentrification greatly accelerated in several cities. Nearly 20 percent of neighborhoods with lower incomes and home values have experienced gentrification since 2000, compared to only 9 percent during the 1990s.
  • Gentrification still remains rare nationally, with only 8 percent of all neighborhoods reviewed experiencing gentrification since the 2000 Census.
  • Compared to lower-income areas that failed to gentrify, gentrifying Census tracts recorded increases in the non-Hispanic white population and declines in the poverty rate. 
And because gentrification has as many definitions as there are people trying to define it, here’s the definition they used:

“For this report, an initial test determined a tract was eligible to gentrify if its median household income and median home value were both in the bottom 40th percentile of all tracts within a metro area at the beginning of the decade. To assess gentrification, growth rates were computed for eligible tracts’ inflation-adjusted median home values and percentage of adults with bachelors’ degrees. Gentrified tracts recorded increases in the top third percentile for both measures when compared to all others in a metro area.”

Here’s a quick look at the top and bottom ten gentrifying cities since 2000, according to the Governing report.  The top ten, with the percentage of tracts that moved by the study’s standards:

Portland, OR              58.1%
Washington, DC        51.9%
Minneapolis, MN      50.6%
Seattle, WA               50.0%
Atlanta, GA               46.2%
Virginia Beach, VA  46.2%
Denver, CO               42.1%
Austin, TX                39.7%
Sacramento, CA        30.0%
New York, NY          29.8%

To me, this list includes most of the usual suspects when one thinks of gentrification in America, with a couple surprises (Virginia Beach, Sacramento) and a couple omissions (Boston and San Francisco, whose big gentrification jumps, like New York, really began in the ’90s).  Here’s the bottom ten:

Dallas, TX                10.2%
San Jose, CA            10.0%
Memphis, TN           8.8%
Tucson, AZ              8.3%
Tulsa, OK                7.0%
Cleveland, OH         6.7%
Detroit, MI               2.8%
Las Vegas, NV        2.0%
El Paso, TX             0.0%
Arlington, TX         0.0%

Like the first list, this one hardly surprises me, either.  All the cities listed here are either Sun Belt metros whose general affordability offer a strong disincentive for infill development and revitalization, or Rust Belt cities where the gentrification phenomenon is in its early stages.  I’d guess San Jose is an outlier because of its unaffordability rather than its affordability, making even greater improvements in household income and home value extremely difficult to achieve.  (One parenthetical note: I’d wager that Rust Belt gentrification in Cleveland, Detroit and others has probably accelerated in the post-Great Recession era since 2009 or so, and might not show up in the current data.  Another five years may tell a different story.)

I think Governing has done an admirable job with this study.  While quantifying the gentrification phenomenon nationwide, they make the point that gentrification is still pretty limited in its scope and spread:

“While it has become much more prevalent, gentrification remains a phenomenon largely confined to select regions, not yet making its way into most urban areas. In the majority of cities reviewed, less than one-fifth of poorer, lower priced neighborhoods experienced gentrification. If all city neighborhoods are considered — including wealthier areas not eligible to gentrify — less than one of every ten tracts gentrified. Cities like Detroit, El Paso and Las Vegas experienced practically no gentrification at all.”

However, in saying this, Governing neglects a big piece that informs the gentrification debate — reaction to the threat of the gentrification process.

Governing’s study is limited to its evaluation of census tracts that have gentrified, according to their criteria, and those that haven’t.  But those very black and white areas are not where the gentrification debate is most heated.  The greatest debate and passion is reserved for the census tracts — the neighborhoods, the blocks — where the process has begun but is still in flux.  The strongest voices on either side are speaking out in communities where the uptick in household incomes and home values is evident, but it hasn’t yet reached the top-third percentiles that this study would say would make it a gentrified area.  In other words, it hasn’t completed the process.

I don’t have the time nor the data to follow up with this, but my guess is that if the study included census tracts that were gentrified, gentrifying and not gentrified, it would produce a far broader and more accurate depiction of American gentrification.  In my mind, gentrified census tracts would be those identified in this study, gentrifying ones would be those that went from below-median income and home value tracts to above-median income and home values (without reaching the top-third percentiles the study identifies as gentrified), and those that remain below the median for income and home value.

Another benefit of this?  With historical analysis, we can see how long the process takes within cities, and see how it compares with other metro areas.  The beginning to the end of the gentrification process in Washington or Seattle, for example, make take only five years, whereas in Chicago or Atlanta it could take ten, and in Cleveland or Detroit it could take fifteen.

I think this added view would provide us with the kind of context we need in understanding one of the biggest changes in how Americans live in the last 75 years.


One thought on “Gentrification as Process, Not End-state

  1. Something that seems to be missing from the gentrification debate is would the urban scholars of today even be able to recognize a form of urban revitalization that does not result in gentrification? I know of some inner city neighborhoods in Milwaukee that have experienced significant investment, with nearly every building along once abandoned historic commercial corridors renovated or newly constructed, but where the surrounding neighborhood remains remains 90% or more occupied by low income minority residents. Is this a failure or a success? It seems to be an example of revitalization without gentrification. I don't know if the revitalization was accompanied by changes in employment rates or income, but its possible that they would remain above or below thresholds of interest to gentrification scholars, and perhaps not even noticed. Seems like if an inner city neighborhood isn't gentrifying, it will be classified as a failing neighborhood. Seems like we need some alternate models for success or transformation of inner city neighborhoods that don't involve gentrification.


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